Author tells students of emergency polio efforts
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Historical fiction writer Joyce Moyer Hostetter told Rowan County students Friday that a homework assignment prompted her second book, “Blue.”
“I had already written ‘Best Friends Forever’ and had gone back to teaching school, but I missed writing, so I signed up for a history writing class,” she said.
The assignment: Research something that happened in your own backyard at least 50 years ago.
“I couldn’t think of anything interesting that had ever happened in Hickory,” Hostetter said. “So I called my local history museum and I told them about my history assignment and they said, ‘What about the Miracle of Hickory?’ ”
Hostetter went to the library to find out more about the emergency polio hospital that opened up within three days of a polio outbreak in Catawba County.
“I sat down at a table in the history room at the local library and started reading these old newspaper articles, old magazine articles about the epidemic and it really got me, really touched me,” she said. “I started thinking about how I could tell a story about that.”
Although the characters in “Blue” are made up, Hostetter said many of them were born from Alice Sink’s nonfiction work titled “The Grit Behind the Miracle: A True Story of the Determination and Hard Work Behind an Emergency Infantile Hospital,” newspaper clippings and personal interviews she conducted with people who had polio.
It took nearly four years to complete the book after Hostetter wrote a chapter for class.
“There were many, many edits and a lot of research,” she said.
Challenge and spirit
Hostetter was invited to talk to the school system’s elementary Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) students Friday at Knox Middle School.
Kelly Feimster, the district’s director of AIG and media, said students read “Blue” and researched Hostetter extensively before her presentation.
“The kids got so into the book,” she said. “It’s good for them to actually get to meet the author.”
Students got a behind-the-scenes glimpse into “Blue” as Hostetter told them about the characters.
Hostetter said the main character, 13-year-old Ann Fay Honeycutt, was modeled after a man she actually knew.
“I was talking to a friend of mine and he said his dad died when he was 14 years old,” Hostetter recalled, “and at the funeral, a woman came up to him and said, ‘I guess you’re the man of the house.’
“He told me he didn’t want to be the man of the house, that he wasn’t ready for the responsibility.”
Hostetter said she knew Ann Fay needed to “try really, really hard” at something she doesn’t think she can do.
Nicholas Shoemaker, a fifth-grader at Morgan Elementary, said he sees that parallel as Ann Fay becomes the leader of the family when her father leaves for World War II.
“It’s interesting to hear about the characters,” he said.
The idea for the character of Junior Bledsoe, a friend who helps Ann Fay plant a victory garden, came from Hostetter’s brother.
“My brother has a real big heart,” she said. “He’s the kind of person that if you call and ask him for help, he says he’s on the way.
“I wanted to include that spirit, that neighborliness that people practice in the South.”
Hostetter said “Polio Pete,” a dog that appears in the book, came from real life newspaper stories about a black-and-white terrier that showed up at the Miracle of Hickory. Legend has it the dog followed his owner to the hospital and refused to leave.
“It was really interesting to find out that Pete the dog was real,” Shoemaker said. “I was surprised about that.”
Learning from the past
Hostetter spent a large portion of Friday’s presentation talking about polio in general.
“People’s lives were turned upside down when the polio epidemic hit,” she said.
Hostetter weaves historical information about polio throughout “Blue.”
During her presentation Friday, she also talked about the iron lung, an artificial respirator that was created to help polio patients breathe.
“She made me want to learn more about the iron lung,” Spencer Chandler, a fourth-grader at Faith Elementary, said.
Hostetter said she’s drawn to writing historical fiction because she believes people can learn from the past.
“I hope (the students) walk away with a love of history as they find out about things that happened to other people,” she said. “People are all very much alike and we can learn from each other and we can learn from hard times.”
Chandler said he likes the way “Blue” builds from Ann Fay’s father going off to war to her brother developing polio.
“It started really getting interesting,” he said.
Shoemaker said “Blue” is one of those books “you just can’t put down.” He’s looking forward to reading the sequel, “Comfort.”
“It was great. It had a lot of inspiring, interesting moments in it,” he said.
Hostetter gave all the students an autographed bookmark. She also spoke to the district’s elementary school Battle of the Books team at Koontz on Friday afternoon.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.